Moms of obese children use different words to restrict eating

January 9, 2018, University of Michigan

It's a familiar scene at a birthday party: As a child goes back for a second cupcake or piece of cake, a parent says he has had enough sweets.

But the rebuke may differ family to family. In a small new study, researchers found caregivers of children with may be more likely to use direct statements to restrict a child's eating.

A research team led by University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital videotaped 237 mothers and children who were seated alone in a room and presented with different types of foods, including chocolate cupcakes. Direct commands like "only eat one" were more often used among mothers of children with obesity while eating dessert, according to the findings published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

Meanwhile, mothers of children who did not have obesity were more likely to guide children with indirect comments such as, "That's too much. You haven't had dinner."

"Current child obesity guidelines remain silent on how parents should talk to their children about limiting intake," says lead author Megan Pesch, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Mott.

"There is some conflicting advice on the best approach. On one hand, overly restricting food could backfire and actually lead to overeating. But parents also want to encourage healthy habits. We wanted to study these family dynamics to see how adults try to get kids to eat less ."

Pesch notes that in most other areas of child development, such as discipline and sleep, direct and firm imperatives are linked with improved child compliance and behaviors. But when it comes to food, expert advice is more mixed.

"Indirect or subtle statements don't seem to work as well in general parenting," she says. "Direct messages are usually easier for kids to interpret and understand where the limits are.

"But there's more sensitivity around how to talk to children about eating and weight.

"To our knowledge, there are also no studies that have examined the impact of parental direct imperatives in restricting a child's intake of unhealthy food," Pesch adds.

The study included low-income, female primary caregivers with children ranging from ages 4 to 8. Ninety-five percent of caregivers were biological mothers, with the remainder mostly including grandmothers and stepmothers.

Pesch says there's sometimes a stereotype that parents of children with obesity are less conscious of their child's eating habits, but the observational study helps debunk some of those misconceptions.

"There's often this perception that parents of children with obesity let their kids eat voraciously and don't manage their child's diet," she says. "But the mothers we observed were on it. They were attentive and actively trying to get their children to eat less junk food.

"These mothers may be quite invested in wanting their children to have the best possible health outcomes."

Pesch says the U-M developmental and behavioral research team plans to further study what language and communication tactics are most effective in encouraging healthy eating among children.

"The finding that of with obesity used more direct imperatives to restrict eating may have important implications for practice guidelines and future research," she says.

"Direct imperatives may in fact have a healthy, adaptive role in approaches to feeding to prevent childhood obesity, but we have to do more work to understand the nuances."

"So many of the guidelines are focused on what not to do," Pesch adds. "There's a lot of emphasis on what parents shouldn't be doing and what doesn't work. We hope to find better answers to the ultimate question of what should do to help set their child up for healthy eating long term."

Explore further: Only one-third of parents think they are doing a good job helping kids eat healthy

Related Stories

Only one-third of parents think they are doing a good job helping kids eat healthy

February 20, 2017
If you know healthy eating is important for your kids but you also feel like it's easier said than done, you're not alone.

A focus on dental health can protect children from developing overweight

November 8, 2017
Talking about dental health with children and parents – about what is healthy and unhealthy for your teeth – can be one way to prevent children from developing overweight. This is suggested in a thesis from Sahlgrenska ...

Many parents put 'food pressure' on their kids, study finds

August 25, 2015
(HealthDay)—New research finds that parents of overweight kids are more likely to restrict their children's food intake—a potentially bad idea—if they themselves are carrying extra pounds.

Fathers' involvement may help prevent childhood obesity

June 21, 2017
Fathers are becoming more involved with raising children, but limited research has examined their association with childhood obesity. In a recent study, fathers' increased involvement with child caregiving was linked with ...

Eat healthy -- your kids are watching

May 30, 2012
If lower-income mothers want kids with healthy diets, it's best to adopt healthy eating habits themselves and encourage their children to eat good foods rather than use force, rewards or punishments, says a Michigan State ...

Parenting and home environment influence children's exercise and eating habits

June 18, 2013
Kids whose moms encourage them to exercise and eat well, and model those healthy behaviors themselves, are more likely to be active and healthy eaters, according to researchers at Duke Medicine.

Recommended for you

Obesity plagues rural America

June 19, 2018
(HealthDay)—Country folk are being hit harder by the U.S. obesity epidemic than city dwellers, two new government studies show.

Binging, purging and fasting more common in overweight, obese young adults

June 12, 2018
Young adults who are overweight or obese are twice as likely as their leaner peers to binge and purge, use laxatives or diuretics, or force themselves to vomit as a means of controlling their weight, according to a new study ...

Study offers new hope for the fight against genetically determined obesity

June 3, 2018
Around 2 to 6 percent of all people with obesity develop the condition in early childhood. Obesity-causal mutations in one of the 'appetite genes' gives them a strong genetic predisposition for developing obesity, also called ...

Abnormal lipid metabolism in fat cells predicts future weight gain and diabetes in women

May 31, 2018
The inefficient breakdown of fats predicts later weight gain and metabolic complications such as type 2 diabetes in women, researchers report May 31 in the journal Cell Metabolism. Low levels of hormone-stimulated lipolysis—a ...

Antidepressant use may contribute to long-term population weight gain

May 24, 2018
Researchers at King's College London have found that patients prescribed any of the 12 most commonly used antidepressants were 21% more likely to experience an episode of gain weight than those not taking the drugs, (after ...

Bid to beat obesity focuses on fat that keeps us warm

May 24, 2018
A new technique to study fat stores in the body could aid efforts to find treatments to tackle obesity.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.